A Sharqi Pit Stop

“This better be worth it!” R muttered under his breath, as we turned into the pockmarked highway leading to Jaunpur. Great clouds of dust obscured the size of the potholes and our heads hit the roof of our vehicle more times than I cared to count.

“Is the Allahabad highway any better?” he asked our equally tense driver, Sanjay. 

“Woh to naya four-lane highway hai Saheb!”

‘Naya’ means new, and that response prompted another “Are you completely out of our mind?” glare. Getting stuck on a remote stretch of road in the UP heartland wasn’t my idea of fun either, but nonchalance seemed like the best defense for the moment. 

I hadn’t heard of Jaunpur until it came up in passing while discussing alternate routes to Varanasi from Lucknow, since Allahabad had been inundated during the rains. The floodwater did recede before the start of our journey, but Jaunpur had taken my fancy by then. And so we bounced along with our hearts in our mouths until the milestone finally read ‘Jaunpur 0’.

One wouldn’t guess from first appearances that this dusty, pathetically underdeveloped medieval town was once the opulent dowry of a Benarasi Princess. It changed hands many times between feuding Hindu princes, until the Slave Sultan from Delhi, Qutub ud din Aibak, annexed it en route to sacking Banaras. It remained a fortified outpost of the Delhi Sultanate till the decline of the Tughlaq dynasty, when a defiant governor (and eunuch custodian of Feroze Shah Tughlaq’s jewellery!) Malik Sarwar, declared his sovereignty, and proclaimed himself Malik e Sharq (Master of the East). Under his successors (adopted sons) Jaunpur flowered into a renowned cultural center, and capital city of a kingdom that extended from Bengal all the way to the foothills of the Himalayas.

Shahi Fort - Jaunpur

Entrance to the Shahi Qila (fort) built in 1360 by Sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq

The rise of the powerful Lodhi dynasty in Delhi put an end to the glory days of the Sharqi kingdom. In 1489, on the orders of Sikander Lodi, a century’s worth of construction was razed to the ground in a matter of days. It was the second Mughal emperor, Akbar the Great, who finally ushered in normalcy in 1567, and set about restoring the few mosques that survived the Lodhi rampage thanks to pressure from the clergy..

The chief contribution of the Sharqi dynasty was the introduction of a unique regional style of architectural that was a synthesis of the Hindu pillar, beam and bracket construction with Islamic arches. The ‘Jaunpur School’, as it came to be known, was distinguished by the absence of traditional minarets in mosques, and the use of solid Egyptian style engraved gateways to screen internal domes.

Precious few examples of the Sharqi tradition survive today. The Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, believed to have been constructed over the remains of a temple marking the birthplace of Lord Ram, was demolished by rioting mobs in 1993, in full view of a dumbstruck nation! Of the three in Jaunpur, the Atala Masjid completed in 1408, is the oldest and most beautiful even if a bit worn around the edges.We didn’t have time for the Jama Masjid, and Lala Darwaza.

The terrifyingly narrow alleys to the center of town filled with people and horse carts made for colourful traffic jams. I could see the colour was lost on hubby, while Sanjay’s language acquired a distinct hue as we progressed! We managed to reach the fort without incident, but he chickened out of the last bit to the royal bridge. So we walked.

Jaunpur Bridge

The 16th century Shahi Pul (Royal Bridge). Guessing the blue paint is of recent origin.

Strangely, Jaunpur never felt the need for a bridge throughout its heydays under the Thuglaqs nor during the construction frenzy under the Sharqi kings. Mass crossings of the Gomti river were apparently accomplished by anchoring boats in a row! “How silly!” thought Akbar, and decided to gift them a brand new bridge. The Shahi Pul, with its marble kiosks spaced out on either edge, is said to be one of very few medieval bridges in the subcontinent that has survived intact. Its canopies are a British addition. The shoddy, makeshift shops cluttering the kiosks, twentieth century Indian.

I was ignorant  of the existence of this gorgeous 12th century sculpture at the South end of the bridge signifying the resurgence of Hinduism over Buddhism, or I would have traversed its length to catch a glimpse. As it was, I was not allowed to forget that we just had time for one last cup of chai from a vendor beside the bridge if we were to make it to Varanasi before dark.

Was the adventure worthwhile? Even R, exhaling with relief as we we hit the main highway, agreed it was! On hindsight, I could have spared him all that stress if I had planned the visit to Jaunpur – just over sixty km from Varanasi – as a daytrip. But I would have wasted another day. And after all, what is travel without a touch of excitement?

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